This past weekend, GOP Congressional candidate and current San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti officially completed a one-year probation for reckless driving that caused a three-car accident on the I-5 near the Central Valley city of Manteca. No injuries resulted, but questions long remained about what exactly caused the accident, as well as why Patti later claimed to have been found “not guilty of DUI charges” after accepting a plea deal in exchange for a lesser charge.
In his most in-depth discussion to date about the episode, Patti publicly discussed both issues with SactoPolitico.com. This included sharing for the first time having accidentally taken an excessive amount of Ambien prior to the accident. Ambien is a sleep aid, and due to the large amount he took, Patti said he has no direct recollection of the July 2018 accident.
“I mistakenly took five Ambien in the middle of the day. They say if you take eight you die. It was a complete accident,” Patti said. “The police did a blood test, and the only thing in my system was exactly what I said I took. The Ambien were exactly identical to my other prescribed drug that are also white, round, 20 mg pills.”
He would not share publicly what the other prescribed medication was. “That is between me and my doctor.” But he did share it with prosecutors, which Patti said contributed to reducing his original DUI charge to a reckless-driving misdemeanor. In August last year, he pled no contest to the reduced charge, which the court considers the same as a guilty plea but also required Patti to agree to the factual basis of the original charge.
Patti is on the Nov. 8 ballot against current U.S. Rep. Josh Harder (D-Tracy) in California’s redesigned 9th Congressional District that includes Stockton, Lodi, Tracy and Manteca.
The 2018 highway accident happened when he failed to stop and hit the car in front of him. This car in turn hit the next car. At the scene, Patti failed a visual field sobriety test, but a breathalyzer indicated no alcohol present. He was arrested for driving under the influence – a potential felony that covers any substance that could impair driving. At the time he explained he had mixed up prescribed medicines, but didn’t publicly identify either drug.
“First, it was a low-speed impact,” Patti emphasized. “I pushed one car into another, and I remain grateful to this day that nobody was injured. I am also grateful of the conduct and professionalism of law enforcement and how they handled the situation.”
“But to be crystal clear, I don’t have a drinking-and-driving problem. I don’t have a drug problem. I had a medical emergency. During the course of my conversation with the officer, I said specifically, ‘I’m not okay. I have not been drinking. I don’t do drugs. I need help.’ Those factors were taken into consideration.”
Patti added he couldn’t understand at the time what caused his driving impairment. He initially wondered if he had been drugged by someone. Then at home, he discovered that the Ambien pills he occasionally took was “exactly 100% identical” in size and color to the prescription medicine he had meant to take.
“I was originally prescribed Ambien after being hit by a car many years ago as a pedestrian. I wouldn’t normally take any amount [of Ambien] during the day. I only take one on a rare occasion when I need to sleep. Maybe two or three times a year and on international flights, but never five,” he said.
News Release Questions
But nine months after his plea deal, his county supervisor office issued a news release headlined “Supervisor Tom Patti Found Not Guilty on DUI Charges.” This suggested new activity in his case, and the May news release went on to say “after a lengthy review by the State, it was confirmed that Supervisor Patti had a medical emergency and found that driving under the influence of alcohol charges were not warranted.”
This caught the eye of Democratic activist Ryan Williams of Berkeley. Last year, Williams was the first to post to Twitter when Patti’s plea deal appeared online in court records. Williams felt the plea deal contradicted Patti’s new claim of being “found not guilty.”
“It was completely surprising for someone to declare himself not guilty after taking a plea deal. If he had said that same exact thing at the time of his plea deal in front of the judge, the judge would not have allowed that and ordered the case to trial,” Williams said.
He added he also found Patti’s news release misleading when it claimed “after a lengthy review” the authorities “found” the original alcohol DUI charge “not warranted.” First, there was no alcohol-specific DUI charge. The charge was for any substance, and the arresting report confirmed no evidence of alcohol had been found at the scene. Thus, no review or investigation of any length into the involvement of alcohol would be necessary.
Second, Williams said by Patti claiming authorities officially said the original DUI charges were unwarranted, this incorrectly suggested state officials now believe the arresting officer made an error.
“He’s doing the Trump thing. In the middle of his Congressional campaign, he randomly declared himself not guilty. Patti is simply lying,” he said.
To verify for himself, Williams filed Public Records Act requests with the California Department of Justice and the County Counsel of San Joaquin County. Both responded that they had no documents to support Patti’s claim of being found not guilty or confirming his medical emergency. Both groups also reported not possessing any reports or other documents that were products of a case review.
When asked about these issues, Patti defended his use of the phrase “lengthy review.” He said the three years that passed from the time of the 2018 accident to his 2021 plea deal counts as a “lengthy” stretch of time. He also said the prosecutors would naturally need to review his evidence of a medical emergency and whether offering a lesser charge was appropriate.
Patti also justified claiming he was found not guilty of a DUI on the grounds his plea deal did not require him to take any DUI driving classes. But he added he has never contested accidentally driving under the influence of Ambien or that this accident led to the traffic accident. To avoid this happening again, he said he has made sure all his prescriptions at home are clearly labeled.
“One and a half million people are injured every year from mistaken prescription ingestion. Thousands of people have been killed. I am thankful no one was injured or killed because I have responsibility for what occurred. That is the most important thing – that no one was hurt – and I am glad I don’t have to have that burden on me,” Patti said.